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Petitioners plead for coal plant closure

LAKELAND — Members of Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign bolstered their earlier economic case to scrap Lakeland Electric’s McIntosh coal-burning Unit 3 generator with arguments for its closure.

The group, part of a national campaign to wean the nation off coal, delivered 727 petitions to the City Commission calling for the 364-megawatt coal burner’s demise, presumably signed by residents in the greater Lakeland area.

Further, “it’s a spiritual mandate for us. It demands justice for our environment; it demands justice for our poor,” Rev. Robert Moses of St. David’s Episcopal Church told the commission Monday.

“Now is the time to divest from coal. … Christians and others of good faith will lead the way in a clean energy future,” Moses said, adding that “the city of Lakeland can be at the front of the energy revolution” by building additional solar capacity.

In the short term, the utility could buy energy produced from natural gas from other utilities while expanding its solar generation and pushing for energy efficiencies, Beyond Coal local organizer Tim Heberlein added.

“We are not officially cheerleaders for natural gas,” Heberlein said. “We’re pragmatists, and we understand moving forward takes time. But this has to be a priority.”

“Every year, we send $58 billon dollars of Florida money out of our state for our energy,” he said, citing a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “energy we could be the leader on in the Sunshine State.”

The group canvassed Lakeland-area residents and “the overwhelming majority of them want to switch from coal to a cleaner fuel,” said Jerry Prescott, a local business owner and Beyond Coal volunteer, “especially those people that have to live near the plant.”

Lakeland Electric General Manager Joel Ivy said solar generation is not a viable replacement for coal or natural gas until energy storage technology reaches industrial-scale capabilities and the price per watt for gets closer to that of hydrocarbon-burning generators.

He said it was his opinion that the nation needs to eventually nix coal unless the environmental damages could be quashed, but as a fiduciary officer of the utility, there are few reasonable alternatives.

He said he doesn’t like the idea of closing a plant before its value and additional investments have been fully depreciated, lest the utility continue paying for equipment it isn’t using. He is also concerned about the volatility of the natural gas market if coal ceases as a viable price competitor.

“Is the cost (of natural gas) right now sustainable? I don’t think so.”

One major unknown is the looming uncertainty of the state’s plan for meeting the EPA’s recently approved Clean Power Plan standards.

“At some point in time, we’re probably going to be made to bring that unit down,” he said.

Depending on how the state’s Department of Environmental Protection writes its compliance rules, the generator could remain in use for another 15 years.

In October, Beyond Coal held a news conference outside the Lakeland Electric headquarters to present a financial case for closing the coal-burning unit. The group also delivered the report to OUC, Orlando’s publicly-owned utility, which has a 40-percent stake in the generator.

Lakeland Electric will meet with Beyond Coal representatives in the near future to discuss the report, but remains skeptical of the bottom line presented by the advocacy group.

In related news, Orange County likely to oppose fracking.

— Christopher Guinn can be reached at Christopher.Guinn@theledger.com or 863-802-7592. Follow him on Twitter @CGuinnNews.

This article was written by Christopher Guinn from The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.